US President Joe Biden emerged from four hours of talks with Chinese leader Xi Jinping on Wednesday confident that strained relations between the US and China were on the mend, touting agreements to curb fentanyl production and restore military communications while still acknowledging that there are still deep strains.
Biden said he and Xi had each agreed to pick up the phone and talk during periods of disagreement, calling the talks “some of the most constructive and productive discussions we’ve had.”
But as he left the summit after a news conference, Biden said he still considered Xi a dictator, despite the progress they had made during their meeting.
The findings on fentanyl and military communications were expected ahead of the talks and represent an important advance in improving the still tense relationship between Washington and Beijing. During his post-summit press conference, Biden summarized his approach to the Chinese leader.
“Trust, but verify, as the old saying goes,” he said. “That’s where I am.”
Biden aimed to use the meeting to put US-China relations on a more stable footing after months of tension between the two superpowers. Ahead of the talks, US officials were careful to manage expectations, saying they did not expect a long list of outcomes or even a joint leadership statement, as is customary after such summits.
The primary goal of the talks appeared to be restoring communication channels, primarily through the military, to avoid the kind of miscommunications or miscalculations U.S. officials fear could lead to open conflict
“My responsibility is to make this rational and clear, so that it does not result in conflicts. That’s what I’m all about,” Biden said afterward.
Biden said China agreed to go after companies that produce precursor chemicals for fentanyl, the powerful narcotic that has fueled a drug crisis in the United States. The US will be watching closely to see if China follows through on the commitments made at the summit.
The president said the agreement by China to reduce precursor chemicals to fentanyl would “save lives” and said he appreciated Xi’s commitment to the issue.
Xi also agreed to mechanisms that would address potential military miscalculations and agreed to forums where the two sides could present their concerns.
Senior Biden administration officials said leading up to Wednesday’s summit that their Chinese counterparts had been “reluctant” over the past few months to agree to reestablish military-to-military communications.
But it was a question that Biden himself and his top advisers such as Secretary of State Antony Blinken, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin raised in “almost every conversation we’ve had with the Chinese,” as the U.S. tried to emphasize that it was ” absolutely critical” that this channel was reopened.
U.S. officials said the Chinese spy balloon incident in particular underscored the importance of military-to-military communications.
Despite a deep and apparently warm personal relationship cultivated during their time as vice presidents — Biden wished Xi’s wife a happy birthday at one point during the summit, with the Chinese leader thanking him for the reminder — the two men have overseen a deterioration in US-China relations at lowest level in decades.
The talks in California were “very direct” and included more back-and-forth discussion between the two men than their meeting a year ago, a senior US official said. The US president was “very direct” with Xi on a range of issues, the official said, while Xi also raised his concerns about rhetoric inside the US about China.
According to readings from US officials and Chinese state media, both leaders appeared to be very honest with each other.
Xi at one point urged the United States to “not plan to suppress or contain China,” Chinese state media reported.
“China has no plans to surpass or depose the United States, and the United States should not plan to suppress or contain China,” Xi said, according to a readout released by China’s state news agency Xinhua.
The men had a “substantial” exchange on Taiwan, with Xi making it clear that concerns over the island were the biggest and most dangerous issue in US-China relations. Xi said China’s preference was for peaceful reunification and laid out conditions under which the use of force would be used. Biden responded by reiterating that the US position was to maintain peace and stability in the region.
“President Xi responded: Look, peace is all good, but at some point we have to move toward a solution more generally,” the senior U.S. official said. Xi also urged the United States to stop arming Taiwan and support China’s “peaceful reunification,” according to a readout published by Xinhua.
At the meeting, the US asked China to respect Taiwan’s electoral process ahead of a vote in January. Despite continued concerns about China’s massive military build-up around Taiwan, US officials came away from the meeting believing Xi was not preparing for a massive invasion.
“Look, I reiterated what I’ve said since I became president, and what all past presidents have said recently: That we maintain an agreement that there is a One China policy, and I’m not going to change that . That’s not going to change,” Biden told reporters traveling with him in San Francisco. “And it’s about the extent to which we discussed it.”
During an exchange about the war between Israel and Hamas, Biden did most of the talking and Xi did most of the listening, a senior U.S. official said. Biden urged Xi to use China’s leverage with Iran to warn against a broader escalation. During the talks, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said they had already held discussions with the Iranians on the subject.
It remained unclear to Biden’s aides afterward how seriously Iran took China’s messages. In the talks, Biden made it clear to Xi that he viewed Hamas as separate from the Palestinians.
In an exchange about restrictions the US has applied to technology exports to China, Xi likened the moves to “technological containment”. Biden responded directly to say that the United States would not provide technology to China that could be used militarily against it.
Biden also directly raised concerns with Xi about harassment of American companies in China, the official said.
The two men discussed artificial intelligence and agreed to work together to advance the new technology.
And Biden told Xi it was important that China be more transparent on nuclear issues as it rapidly expands its arsenal.
Biden “pulls no punches,” the official said, noting that Xi is experiencing little pushback in the Chinese system, adding that the US president was “respectful” but “clear.”
With conflicts raging in the Middle East and Europe as he prepares to fight for re-election, Biden hoped to prevent another crisis from exploding on his watch. He sought to demonstrate not only to the Americans – but also directly to Xi – why an improved relationship with Beijing is in everyone’s interest.
“I think it’s critical that you and I understand each other clearly, leader to leader, without misunderstanding or miscommunication,” Biden told Xi as their talks got under way at a secluded estate south of San Francisco.
Speaking afterward, Xi offered his own take on the complex moment in US-China ties.
“Planet Earth is big enough for the two countries to succeed,” he said.
The optics of the summit were carefully negotiated between the two sides, and the formal welcome to the property was highly choreographed. As host of the meeting, Biden first exited the building to welcome Xi. A red carpet had been rolled out with naval guards and flags from both countries. The Chinese president’s black sedan pulled up and stopped at the end of the carpet. Xi appeared with a smile, and the two men shook hands and grabbed each other’s wrists.
As the meeting got under way, Biden told Xi that it is important that the two men have an honest understanding of each other.
Biden said the leaders had a responsibility to their populations to work together, including on issues of climate change, combating drug trafficking and approaching artificial intelligence. He added that competition between the US and China could not tip towards conflict.
“As always, there is no substitute for face-to-face discussions. I have always found our discussions straightforward and honest,” Biden said.
Speaking after Biden, Xi offered a sharper view of US-China ties.
“China-US relations have never been smooth over the past 50 years and more, and it always faces problems of one kind or another. Yet it has continued to move forward amid twists and turns,” said he through a translator.
“For two big countries like China and the United States, turning their backs on each other is not an option,” he continued. “It is unrealistic for one side to rebuild the other, and conflict and confrontation have unbearable consequences for both sides.”
Xi appeared to reject Biden’s view of “competition” between the US and China, saying he was “still of the opinion that competition in big countries is not the prevailing trend today and cannot solve the problems that China and the US or the world faces. in the grand scheme of things.”
For most of the last year, US officials have been laying the groundwork for the summit. Aiming to re-establish diplomatic channels between the two countries, Sullivan has met with Wang three times, while Blinken, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and US climate envoy John Kerry have all traveled to Beijing.
The indictment has also been extended in the other direction, with China’s top officials – including its foreign minister – traveling to the United States to meet with their American counterparts. US officials said working-level consultations had been established with Beijing on particularly sensitive issues such as arms control and maritime issues.
Sources familiar with these efforts say Washington has seen signs in recent months that the Chinese are beginning to accept the wisdom of both countries working together to strengthen their lines of communication and mitigate misunderstandings.
Still, as Biden prepared for Wednesday’s summit, Republicans questioned his decision to seek a meeting with Xi. Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor who is seeking the GOP presidential nomination, claimed that Biden had “begged” for the meeting.
Republicans on a House Select Committee on China sent Biden a letter spelling out areas they believe he needs to challenge Xi, including the wrongful detention of Americans and the production of fentanyl.
Biden and his aides are very aware of the political background of his meeting. Sullivan said Biden was “looking for … practical ways to show the American people that sitting down with Xi Jinping can defend American interests and also deliver progress on the priorities of the American people.”
This story has been updated with additional developments on Wednesday.